Vorkov’s Angel

Snow is swirling in suburban skies and piling up quickly on the sagging roof of the Perpetual Winter Hockeyrena. Inside the building, Coach Vladimir Vorkov paces behind plexiglass and smokes a cigarette against league and rink policy. His attention is divided. Foremost it is tracing the glacial action on the ice. Vorkov is at the same time thinking that the detention and torture of wayward human souls must be tricky, tragic business—a thought that on the surface seems to be totally unrelated to his primary concern but actually intersects with it, is intersecting here and now, in an entirely confounding but sort of interesting way, that is if the whole thing weren’t so dire on so many levels.

Yet a third part of Vorkov’s attention is focused across the rink, in row six of the bleachers, where Angel Demonia is reading a magazine and slouching, legs uncrossed, in a crimson mini-skirt and silver high heels that match her bulging tube top. Vorkov notices that a new spectator, a rather imposing man, has just entered the building. This development is troublesome. For one thing Vorkov knows the man, knows why he is here, and what his presence symbolizes. For another the man has chosen to sit right beside Vorkov’s beloved Angel, even though the bleachers are less than a third full and he could have chosen to sit anywhere. The man notices Vorkov looking at him and grins slyly before turning and whispering something into Angel’s ear. She laughs demurely. Plunges a playful fist into the shoulder of the man’s black bomber jacket.

She’s trying to be cute. Vorkov knows this and would be lying if he were to say it does not anger him. It does. But he has accepted that, despite his early successes, he is the type of man in whom disappointment and absurdity make it a point to meet regularly. It is with defiance, rather than resignation, that Vorkov’s hands now seek the pockets of acid-washed jeans that are too old, too short and too tightly wrapped around his beanstalk legs to reach the tongues of his white tennis shoes. He has drilled an extra hole in his faux snakeskin belt because none of the holes punched by the manufacturer allow him to cinch it tightly enough around his waist. A mountain-ranch scene, replete with cowboy and bucking bronco, is frozen in time on that belt’s oversized buckle.

Angel and the man are talking now, though it’s hard for Vorkov to characterize the nature of their conversation from so far away, on mute, with only their mannerisms to inform him. Vorkov is watching them and the game and scratching with a single oft-broken hairy knuckle his stubbled cheek, and not so much smoking the cigarette as allowing it to dangle between jaws that are grinding nervously, laterally, below a thin but spectacularly long nose and thick black mustache that usually smells vaguely of garlic and vinegar.

Several hundred milligrams of Carbamazapine is swimming through Vorkov’s vascular system, working to keep at bay the seizures that have the potential to cause him considerable problems, especially if one jolts him while skating or, God forbid, driving down the freeway. Stress, the doctor tells him, is a big-time trigger that should be avoided at all costs. But such is life, life is the bitch, is what Vorkov always tells himself in broken English. Who can avoid stress? He’s asking himself that now as his eyes follow ten eight-year-olds skating awkwardly around the rink in front of him.

The scarcity of skill here is staggering. True, they are young, but Vorkov is sure he was miles ahead of these kids, both as a skater and stick-handler, by the time he began to play competitive hockey. They possess none of the fluidity that earned him a bronze medal as a captain on the 1984 Czechoslovakian Junior National team. None of the toughness that—despite his wiry frame and hard-to-carry head (he required a custom helmet)—earned him the not particularly clever or original but still flattering nickname, “The Czech checker” (though Vorkov is Russian by birth). Doctors have told Vorkov his aggressive style of play and the frequent and violent blows to the head that attended it likely precipitated his current condition. Vorkov accepts this, is entirely okay with it, in a strange way even honors it, for one simple reason: back then he was magic.

Nothing magical is happening here. Angel and the man are still talking in the bleachers, and the action on the ice has stalled in a mass of little bodies near the blue line. Vorkov yells something in accented English that none of the players can understand. Such insolence. They are not spreading out as he has been instructing. Instead, barely visible beneath oversized sweaters, pads and helmets, both teams swarm around a black puck that has spent the past ten minutes being slapped around aimlessly—posing no credible threat to either goal—while a few espresso-charged parents try to manipulate the action with shouts of encouragement and poorly masked frustration.

It’s starting to look like an inevitable scoreless tie, which simply won’t cut it, when one of the smaller opposing players breaks free with the puck and skates goalward along the boards near Vorkov. This child is perhaps malnourished, Vorkov thinks, as he watches his own pudgy winger close in at a sharp angle, picking up a pretty good head of steam, spraying little tails of misty ice behind each of his skate’s blades. Vorkov is aching to see a big collision. He needs it deep down, though it would oppose his own clandestine self-interest. His hands are now removed from his pocket—palms pressed, fingers splayed against plexiglass that does not acknowledge human breath, remains steamless, despite Vorkov’s frenzied dispensation of youth hockey instruction.

“Give this boy the hit! Give him the hit!” Vorkov bangs on the plexiglass as he screams this. The pudgy winger, on the threshold of a potentially brutal hit, lifts his head slightly at the commotion being made by his coach. In doing so he loses his footing. Skate catches edge. Impact is eluded. The smaller boy is now gone like the pudgy winger’s balance, the absence of which has the winger for a fraction of a second parallel with the ice, just above it, and Vorkov can see something that resembles fear seize the boy’s fat freckled face just before he makes landfall with a thud. Momentum carries the winger, now sprawled on his stomach, slowly into the boards. Predictably there are tears. A shrieking whistle signals an injury timeout. Some of the opposing team’s parents begin complaining to the ref for interrupting play during what surely would have been a breakaway.

Vorkov, too, is beside himself with anger. When a player fails, so too does his coach, intervening whistle or no. He stomps out his cigarette and pushes the anger down as his players assemble near the bench. He must stay calm. The sniffling winger has picked himself up off the ice and is wobbling toward the group. Vorkov, pacing and vigorously massaging his chin, delays his opening line for dramatic effect, knowing that, since his command of language is modest, the effectiveness of his message will depend entirely on the boldness of his delivery. He stops pacing and bends down to the level of his players.

Vorkov’s pulse is visible in his right temple. It’s like a twitch except it comes at regular intervals. He raises one eyebrow slightly and points to a large banner hanging on the wall of the Hockeyrena. “What does sign say?” No one answers. Still, Vorkov keeps his long finger stretched out toward the sign, shaking it emphatically. “What does sign on wall say? Eh? You are smart boys. Read the words. Who can read me the words?” His voice is measured, authoritative. He varies its pitch as he talks. Builds it to crescendo. Allows it drift freely, to offset his sometimes robotic movements. This is how they know his passion. That and the pacing, which he resumes during a period of protracted silence that comes to a merciful end when Dragomir Demonia, defiant defenseman, raises his hand and proclaims, somewhat cockily, that he can read the sign.

Vorkov emits a brief guttural laugh. Because he and Dragomir have been sparring verbally for several weeks, Vorkov knows that the forthcoming remark will not be the one he is hoping for. Unfortunately his laughter precipitates a rather violent coughing fit, and Vorkov is now bent in half, hacking enough that some of the parents in the stands have taken notice and are looking on worried, but also disgusted. The players fidget while their coach drives his fist into his own chest skillfully, almost surgically, until the coughing subsides. Another cigarette, unlit and recently removed from the pack in the pocket of Vorkov’s checkered flannel shirt, suddenly dangles toward a struck match. Flame, carcinogen and paper converge audibly. Vorkov drags deep, tilts his head back toward the ceiling and spews a large cloud of smoke into the chilled arena air, watching it ascend slowly toward the rafters before lowering his eyes to meet the stare of Dragomir Demonia, who is smiling ever so slightly. “And what does sign on wall say, Dragomir?”

Dragomir does not look at the sign. He has one green eye and one brown, and directs them first toward the toes of his skates, then directly at Vorkov as he responds: “It says ‘youth hockey temporarily distracts us from a life that is tedious and mostly without meaning.’” Dragomir punctuates that last word—“meaning”—with a shrug that Vorkov suspects is intended to be cute, or smart alecky, before adding: “And I would think that youth hockey also does a decent job of distracting us from whichever loser happens to currently be shacking up with our mother.”

Though he pretty much catches Dragomir’s drift, Vorkov is visibly vexed. It is true that he met exotic dancer Angel Demonia six weeks ago at a night club, and that he’d used his fading hockey celebrity to catapult himself onto the stained mattress that occupies the southern wall of her trailer. And that she, the single mother of eight-year-old aspiring hockey star Dragomir, had begged Vorkov to give her son a few pointers. And that Vorkov had acquiesced, in part due to his need for a place to stay but also because he occasionally gets lonely, and that somehow the whole thing had snowballed and now he, an inveterate gambler and alcoholic, is, astoundingly, incongruously, a youth hockey coach and Angel is something like his girlfriend. And that because Vorkov is who he is, he has made a pretty despicable wager on this game—against his own team, no less—and all of this, he can’t help thinking, is something of a disaster. And so he’s vexed in general, but not because he doesn’t understand what Dragomir is getting at. For the good of the team Vorkov decides to elevate above his vexed state.

“English is not my native language,” he whispers gravely. “But this is not what sign says. Now . . . ” His face crinkles with intensity “ . . . Who can say what sign says? Eh? Who can say?” He picks up an orphaned stick that is leaning against the bench and taps its blade sharply against the plexiglass, for emphasis, once with each word, as he repeats, teeth clenched: “Who . . . can . . . say?”

But summoned by the referee’s whistle, the players disperse to their various positions, leaving Vorkov and a handful of substitutes to watch from the bench. Vorkov mumbles something to himself and then yells to no one in particular: “We finish this when period ends.”

The puck drops. Vorkov looks again to the bleachers. Angel is gone. So too is the man who had been sitting next to her. Vorkov’s first impulse is to rush from his spot on the bench and find her, find them. They are probably together in a bathroom stall, or in the man’s car in the parking lot, or worse yet in Vorkov’s own failing hatchback. The images in his head are too vivid. He should chase, but doesn’t. Can’t. Better to focus on the game. On his players. The sign on the wall. His Angel will return soon.

A few agonizing minutes later the period has ended and she is not back. Vorkov lights a cigarette and tells his players to reflect quietly, to think about the meaning of the sign on the wall while the zamboni circles the ice. He promises to return shortly, walks swiftly through the swinging white gate that separates the bench from the bleacher area, jogs up the concrete stairs and through the heavy blue door that’s holding back the warmth of the lobby.

The room is too hot and smells of stale buttered popcorn. Soft rock groans through speakers overhead, with Vorkov coming in at the exact beginning of a technically flawless but soulless eight bar guitar solo that bleeds into the final chorus just as he finishes surveying the scene. A few players have arrived early for the next game and are huddled near a pair of pinball machines in the corner. A panting dog of indeterminate breed stands on all fours, its red leash tethered to a table leg. The rink is visible through several large windows, next to which several empty metal folding chairs are haphazardly arranged. There is no sign of Angel or the man. Not at the skate rental counter. Nor at the cashier.

Vorkov’s undershirt is wet with perspiration. His breathing has quickened. He bursts through the front door into the windblown snow that has enveloped the parking lot. After a few steps his tennis shoes come to a crunching halt. He looks around. All is silent. Dusk has turned to darkness. Snowflakes are congregating in his mustache and crystallizing, causing his nose to twitch uncontrollably. He sneezes. Trudges to his car to find it buried in snow and unoccupied.

Looking back toward the entrance of Perpetual Winter Hockeyrena he sees snowflakes lit by the halo of a purplish lamp. Below that are twin doors of glass. The cement is bare beneath a canopy that shelters the area directly adjacent to the building. Beyond the canopy snow suffocates sidewalk. Two pairs of footsteps are stamped into the drift. He follows them, postulating, around the side of the building.

Snow is climbing nearly to Vorkov’s knees, is infiltrating the stretch of leg between his jeans and the tongues of his shoes as he struggles along the side of the building, feeling his way in the dark along the red brick wall. He keeps walking into his own breath. Another purple lamp hangs from the wall. With slow knee-high steps he enters its glow, following the footsteps around the corner.

What he sees next stops him in his tracks. He sees that the footsteps end and that they lead to two people who are exerting themselves, somewhat vigorously, toward a mutual goal. But neither of the shadowy figures is Angel or the man. And neither of them is exerting themselves in quite the manner Vorkov had expected. The men see him and stop shoveling.

Because he feels foolish for having come out here and doesn’t know what else to say Vorkov says to them what is up, even though he recognizes, can see very plainly, what is up—the men are scooping copious amounts of snow from the roof of the Hockyrena’s lower building, which houses various kinds of ice hockey skates and goals and equipment, a retired zamboni, several vending machines, an army of chairs and tables, and two massive portable bleachers that are wheeled in and erected at each end of the rink for especially big events. This smaller storage space is separated from the main building by a narrow path that is actually above the level of its roof so that, if one is so inclined, they can easily jump down to said roof and still be sufficiently hidden by the adjacent retaining wall to smoke or make out or, in this case, shovel.

Like the main building the storage area has a flat roof—not typically an issue in these moderate climes—but in freakish snow like this is a cave in waiting to happen. So these guys are shoveling like mad, and they say so with slight irritation when Vorkov asks what is up.

By the time they answer, though, Vorkov has disappeared around two corners and is back in the lobby. The sudden change in temperature has him feeling woozy. There is a clammy wetness behind his collar, and his temple thumps as he walks down a fluorescently lit hallway. He stops and presses his ear to the men’s room door. Hearing only the rumbling of his own stomach, he knows there is no one on the other side. Still, he enters. His rubber soles squeak on the tile. A fan hums quietly in an unknown location, struggling to eradicate the smell. Vorkov peeks into the room’s lone stall. It is empty. The cherry of his cigarette soon fizzles in the toilet, which he flushes with his foot. He shuts the door and drops his jeans, hoping to release stress that seems to be lodged somewhere in his midsection. On the toilet he thinks of Angel. Afterward he walks to the sink and splashes cold water on his face, taking extra care to saturate the mustache area. While using several scratchy paper towels to pat himself dry, Vorkov looks into the mirror and finds he is no longer alone.

Standing behind him is an imposing figure wearing dark jeans and a black bomber jacket. The man carries a hockey stick, and his face is obscured by a smiling Wayne Gretzky mask. Vorkov, holding a half-crinkled paper towel, turns around to address the Great One, as in Wayne Gretzky, as in the greatest hockey player who ever lived.

His tone is casual as he asks Wayne Gretzky what it is he wants. He then crumples the paper towel and launches it toward the trash can near the door. The projectile misses slightly to the left. The masked man remains motionless and silent. Vorkov starts toward the door, retrieves his errant paper towel and drops it in the garbage. “I must go,” he says, squinting tightly and pressing his palm to his pulsing forehead. “I have game to coach.”

Vorkov pulls on the handle, but the door doesn’t open. He chuckles solemnly. Pulls harder, four or five more times, with the same result. Sweat has now soaked completely through his undershirt, is creeping across the flannel beneath his armpits. He turns again to face Wayne Gretzky.

“We both know you are not Wayne Gretzky,” Vorkov says, placing a cigarette in his mouth. The lighter flicks. Vorkov drags and exhales. “And that all of hell is not frozen in that rink. It is just an expression. That is just a rink. You are just a bookie. And this is just a bet. If my team wins, I will pay you with money—nothing else.”

Met again with silence, Vorkov turns back to the door and pulls on the handle. Again it doesn’t open. He begins to tug with all of his strength, pressing his right foot against the wall for additional leverage. He tugs frantically, in rhythm with his quickening pulse, harder with each pull, cigarette dangling precariously from his mouth, until he pulls with such force that he loses his grip and tumbles backward onto the tile floor. The Great One, standing above collapsed and prone Coach Vladimir Vorkov, begins to read dramatically but without pretension from what looks to be a Demonton Junior Hockey League Rulebook.

“ . . . And some 850 million years ago, in what has been labeled by Science as the Cryogenian, there was a shortage of humans— in fact there were none yet—but no shortage of spiritual energy, much of it terrifying and potentially uncontrollable, careening around planet Earth in various organic forms. And so the Great One, with nothing but the best intentions, froze all in sight. Literally. All became Encrusted in Ice. Snowball Earth. But the Great One, he later regretted doing this, since he suspects deep down that spiritual energy is neither good nor bad—it’s just that it manifests itself in some pretty confused and awful ways sometimes. So after some thoughtful but not omniscient deliberation he allowed things to thaw, slowly, to ensure it didn’t get too crazy too fast.

And eventually there was all this humanity—lots of people were walking around doing things—but not enough of it so meaningful as to warrant Total Thaw. So there were still plenty of chunks of spiritual chaos, frozen, mostly near the poles and in glaciers and such, away from most of the main population centers, and to a lesser degree in meat lockers and snow cones and ice arenas—and wherever else H2O met sufficiently cold temperatures—around the globe. And it froze and thawed not exactly in equal proportion, but close enough to maintain the type of equilibrium that could sustain an existence that either was or was not meaningful, depending on whether one was pompous enough to speak aloud whatever meaning they’d no doubt ascribed to it since times immemorial.

And one day the Great One descended through the mists of a drunken dream on a man who had been an above average hockey player and a below average human being. And a choice was offered to this above/below average man by a God in disguise, the only God the man could conceive, one Wayne Gretzky. And this above/below average man soon after awoke in a sweat next to a wigged woman who, he vaguely recalled later, had claimed she received the pitchfork-shaped scar on her left temple as a little girl, when her trailer was tossed several hundred feet by a tornado (the impact had thrust her face-first into a sink full of unwashed silverware) in the same year and town in which the Great One had earned his third Stanley Cup.

And the eerie shape of the scar combined with the dream, the woman’s self-contradictory and surreally creepy name (Angel Demonia), a perhaps unhealthy passion for Edmonton Oilers hockey, and the kind of superstition that afflicts most heavy gamblers, the man concluded that the improbable scenario put forth in the dream was real—that he was in fact being forced by God as Gretzky to gamble on the future of humanity. That this game, played by Pee-Wees, was, all in all, All. Adding to the intrigue was a pretty substantial financial stake that the man had placed on his own team losing (before he knew about these larger spiritual stakes).

And so the players toiled. And it came to pass that one Dragomir Demonia, with a totally unforeseeably wicked wrister from the point, elevated Vorkov’s Demonton Boilers to the vaunted position of league champion. And the parents applauded with zeal and relief, and the pimpled teenage referee disappeared behind the boards for a moment before reappearing with a plastic replica of Lord Stanley’s Cup, though much smaller, which he gave to Dragomir to share with his teammates, who proceeded to parade around the mostly empty Perpetual Winter Hockeyrena in an inordinately long celebration. And all tipped the cup to their lips to taste the sweet sparkling cider.

And so it was written, because someone said it, and because someone else was nearby listening and happened to be in possession of an instrument capable of recording the event in writing, that if the word is God, as God said, and God is dead, as Nietzsche said, then why should any of us be surprised to find that Vorkov, as he shuffles skateless toward center ice to shake the opposing coach’s hand, is unable to find words to describe why he’s so happy he just lost a significant chunk of money in a bet? And why should we be surprised to find it doesn’t much bother him that he doesn’t feel ashamed, even though he knows he should, because even if he could talk good English he wouldn’t say what he’s thinking just now, not because his thoughts don't make sense, although they don't, but because fuck it. A win is a win. So he just smiles.

And while Vorkov is smiling and nodding at his opponent, the post-celebration Pee Wees are skating to their respective benches for orange slices and the zamboni man is mounting his ride and preparing to give the ice and hell beneath it life anew, for the next group of world-savers. And for a moment, just before the snow-burdened ceiling comes crashing down on top of him, Vorkov stands alone at center ice and transfers a half-smoked cigarette from above his ear to the space below his mustache. And now the cigarette is lit, and Vladimir Vorkov is standing smoking, smiling at center ice, which looks like a bull’s-eye from the sky the ceiling soon reveals. And now the ice beneath is melting and Vorkov, the Czech Checker in his checkered flannel shirt is sinking, pulled down by his big-tongued shoes. And he hopes that the depths below him are black and warm and endless, but believes they will be cold and finite.

And on his way down he sees the little faces of his players peering over the boards, each of their expressions snowflake unique, and their parents in the bleachers behind, still whispering as Vorkov descends. He feels the water, icy cold actually, now nipping at his nape, and he tilts his head back until all he can see is the ceiling coming apart in chunks and snow falling in the building, and the scoreboard with its several burnt-out bulbs and the ones that work buzzing dully in yellow and orange, reading nothing but zeroes.

And now he’s closed his eyes and let the water overtake them, and the only human part of Vorkov that’s still above the surface is his mustache. And either in his mind or in reality the last vestige of Vladimir Vorkov the crowd sees is the cigarette’s ember, shivering, glowing red, until suddenly there’s nothing left, not even blue smoke rising toward the sign on the wall . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .”

“Youth hockey builds winners,” is what it says, the sign on the wall, which is not visible from the tile bathroom floor on which Vladimir Vorkov has been sprawled for the past two minutes. Still, he’s reading it over and over in his head and has begun to mumble the words aloud, though they can’t be understood by Angel, who is standing above him screaming hysterically. He is coming to in a puddle of triple-filtered spring water that she, hoping for a miracle and unaware that his is a recurring condition brought on by repeated blows to the head and triggered by stress and certainly not helped by a generally unhealthy lifestyle or curable by a well-intentioned, guilt-ridden girlfriend, has poured from a plastic bottle onto his convulsing face.

Vorkov is now wet and pissed and disoriented, but after a few expletives he is sitting up. He shakes his head vigorously, slaps his face twice. A miracle has indeed happened—his cigarette was not extinguished in the flood. It burns, somehow saved, surrounded on all sides by the puddle of water. He picks it up carefully and secures it below his stache. He looks at Angel. Her mouth is moving but he hears no words. No one else is in the room. The Great One, apparently, has left the building. Maybe never was here. Coach Vladimir Vorkov is not sure. Does not care. He climbs to his feet, walks without expression past Angel Demonia and exits toward the ice.  

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